Best of the West – Preparing for San Juan, Part 2

The StarCityGames.com Open Series comes to Seattle!
Thursday, June 10th – At the end of last week’s article, I was in Madison, WI at the home of Brian Kowal and we had just begun to crack the draft format, and had Mono-Red and Summoning Trap as archetypes we thought were viable in the Block Constructed format.

At the end of last week’s article, I was in Madison, WI at the home of Brian Kowal and we had just begun to crack the draft format, and had Mono-Red and Summoning Trap as archetypes we thought were viable in the Block Constructed format.

The end of my visit to Madison took me to the home of Adrian Sullivan for playtesting, drinks, and snacks. If you ever have a chance to enjoy Adrian’s hospitality, I strongly recommend it. The man is a skilled bartender in addition to being a talented Magic writer and theorist. (I mean, anyone who keeps a bottle of the good stuff in a hidden compartment in the living room table has to be pretty serious about their liquor, right?) He fixed some of the tastier mixed drinks I’ve run into anywhere while showing us his personal creation in block:

Adrian’s deck annihilated both the small Aggro-Red deck as well as Brian’s larger Dragon Red deck, which makes sense since going bigger and bigger is best with red. Having no creatures in the main also provided a lot of virtual card advantage against decks that were playing cards targeting creatures. (Mono-Red aggro really hated having hands full of dead Searing Blazes.) Unfortunately when we pulled out the Summoning Trap deck, Adrian’s creation didn’t hold up. (Apparently that day he didn’t have All is Dusts and was brewing with something new, and the card is one of the most important in the matchup.) What we did learn, though, was that Seer’s Sundial was a very powerful card in the format, as well as that aggro was most definitely able to be controlled by any deck with enough burn spells.

After this I bid a farewell to Madison and hopped a plane for New York. Gaudenis Vidiguris had generously offered me his apartment for the weeks I intended to stay in the city. (He stayed with his girlfriend who lives on the same floor down the hall.) There is an old joke in my family about a cousin who is a mathematician. He had moved into an apartment a year before some other relatives came to visit him. When he showed them in they found he had a mattress on the floor, one box of clothes open, and a table spread over with mathbooks with a box pulled up to sit upon. His only real interest was math, and he was so busy with that that he had never bothered to decorate or even unpack! Gau’s place had a bit of this quality to it: it’s slightly more decorated but his bedroom is actually just clothes, a bed, and almost every other surface completely covered in Magic cards. There was no table or chair, so I had to steal one of his stereo speakers to use as a very small desk and a chair from his girlfriend’s place to work at. Otherwise his place was totally sweet: it was located smack in the middle of downtown Manhattan, there was a great corner store below the building, Chipotle (a personal addiction of mine) was only two blocks away, and really wanted for nothing.

Sam was beginning to test decks against himself in Madison and sending in results. He was beginning to think Blue/White control was an archetype people would play, both because it worked in Standard and there were a few very powerful cards available that would lure players (possibly including him) in:

For my first day of testing in the Big Apple I headed up to Zvi’s place. Zvi had declared that his apartment would be our headquarters for preparing for the event. He had ordered four complete sets of Zendikar, Worldwake, and Rise of the Eldrazi from Star City Games so that we would be able to build every deck we wanted to use in the format. As someone who usually tests with online cards, I was impressed with being able to make physical copies of decks just as easily as I had been building digital copies of decks. Playing with real cards had a substantial edge over virtual ones, and I would test this way all the time if I could.

Jacob Van Lunen and I played a number of games of the Hellcarver Demon deck against Sam’s control list, and we found that Blue-White had a substantial edge. The Summoning Trap deck just didn’t have enough real threats, so that Blue-White could often find enough counters and wrath effects to stay alive. In addition, though Pelakka Wurm was an ace against Red strategies, it was a pretty miserable creature in this matchup. Van Lunen realized this, and would use his Jaces to fatesteal very aggressively, leaving any card that wasn’t one of the few reasonable threats on top. He could even leave Emrakul since the deck could never cast it in a reasonable time frame! We realized we needed to go back to the drawing board on Summoning Trap strategies, and probably apply the same lesson we had learned with the Blue-Green build, that we should be able to hard cast any of the guys we wanted to cheat out.

At this point Zvi synthesized a number of the lessons we had been learning and proposed a Red-Green Summoning Trap deck that combined castable fat that was still worth cheating out with burn spells to keep aggressive decks under control:

The deck also had a huge number of manlands, which we anticipated would provide persistent threats against decks like U/W which wanted to wrath us.

We took Zvi’s new build and pitted it against mono-Red, and it looked like the matchup was favorable in the 55-60% range. Being able to kill a Kargan Dragonlord, Plated Geopede, or Kiln Fiend made a world of difference, as one was saving 4, 5, 7, 8, or 10 life from just the first hit! Combining this with the lifegain of Pelakka Wurm or the quick clock of Baloths or Avenger was pretty sweet. Our matchup against U/W seemed slightly unfavorable pre-board, but with Seer’s Sundial it looked like it became nigh-impossible for them to win after boarding. The tech Sullivan had pushed just meant a relatively endless stream of threats that eventually the control deck couldn’t keep up with.

Many of the rest of us kept brewing. Matt Ferrando was interested in playing Boros, and offered up a build that used Emerge Unscathed to help power up and protect his Kiln Fiends to good effect:

We fairly quickly decided that the Bushwhacker/Summons combo did not belong in a deck that wasn’t dedicated to red mana. However, we also found that this deck was about a turn faster than the mono-Red deck, that Emerge Unscathed was often a complete blowout, and Goblin Bushwhacker could do some fairly powerful things even without a summons being involved. A few other people tried piloting Boros after we reported it was generally a turn faster than red, but everyone else who picked the deck up found they had troubles with their mana, or inconsistent hands. Essentially, the deck could be very powerful, but not every draw worked out well, the price the deck paid for its speed was high variability.

I think each player came to the groups with concepts that they were interested in pushing, and I had been intrigued by the Seer’s Sundial based strategies. I thought there might be a reasonable Mono-Black strategy with Mind Sludge or Black-White strategy with powerful control cards. I thought perhaps Sludge could level other decks if it came out fast enough, or that in a long game a card like Sadistic Sacament (from the board) could take away all of an opponent’s meaningful threats.

These decks were both reasonable against Mono-Red aggro. In particular the B/W deck had so many ways of absorbing 6-8 points of damage that it felt like winning was just about impossible for the red one. On the other hand Zvi’s Summoning Trap deck just seemed to smash both decks since they pretty much had to have a fast Mind Sludge or Day of Judgment plus a clock, otherwise Avengers of Zendikar or Rampaging Baloths would rapidly close out the game. I did find that Prophetic Prism was really sweet as a mana-fixer, which I guess is being born out currently in Standard. The more I tested against the Summoning Trap, the more I thought I wanted to be playing the Summoning Trap deck.

This phenomena repeated itself over the course of the next few days as each player on the team played one side or the other against Summoning Trap and found themselves getting the worse of the matchup. My favorite was one morning as people were showing up to test Zvi asked each person which deck they were most likely to play at the Pro Tour. Matt Ferrando and I were both on Summoning Trap, but Van Lunen said he would play Mono-Red. We sat him down to play a 10 game set of Summoning Trap against something else, and by the end of the set he’d changed his mind. “I’ll take this deck!”

It wasn’t much longer before Sam Black arrived in New York to occupy Gau’s even emptier extra room and had steadily upgraded his W/U builds. MTGO had upgraded to include Rise of the Eldrazi, and block events were beginning to churn out results. Just as most of the team was falling in line to play the R/G Summoning Trap deck we saw the Mono-Green Eldrazi ramp deck begin to attack the online metagame:

This deck just ramped harder into better things than our R/G Summoning Trap deck. They could also blow us out with All is Dust while still aggressively moving into their own end game plan. Zvi was skeptical that this deck could really exist, because it could never beat red, but it threw us briefly into a panic.

Fortunately we found the answer in the form of Tajuru Preserver. In their infinite wisdom the folks at R&D usually create hosers to any specific strategy should it prove to be too powerful, and the Eldrazi have this built-in Achilles Heel. Our win percentage pre-board with Trap was somewhere around 30%. Each preserver we boarded in increased that percentage by about 10%, and we were very good at finding them during games since a preserver was a fine card to Summoning Trap into. After all, all we needed were a few chump blockers which Avenger or Baloths could easily provide, immunity to annihilate, and we virtually locked the Eldrazi deck out of the game. (Okay, okay, Emrakul over the top was eventually bad, but trap can make a lot of guys pretty fast.)

Since we were thinking we were going to play R/G Trap, Zvi and I started discussing how other decks, starting with Mono-Red, were going to want to sideboard against us to get better in the match. At first we thought they might try land destruction, but it turned out that wasn’t very effective since the Land-D spells often came a turn too late, or they had to be cast on the same turn that the Trap deck was planning to Harrow, which effectively countered the effect of the Goblin Ruinblaster or Rolling Terrain. The conversation continued with the observation that the red deck mostly won when it was able to deal 8 damage with its other cards and finish the game with 12 points from a Kargan Dragonlord. (4 as a 4/4 flier, then 8 as an 8/8.) Since the rest of the cards had little work to do in the match, it seemed reasonable to weaken the non-Dragonlord components to create more variance-spikes that could lead to victory. (Read: Add the Summons combo.) Under this theory we re-built our red gauntlet deck to have Devastating Summons and Goblin Bushwhacker in the main. We then played trap against it and found our theory was correct. With the summons wins added to the Dragonlord wins, red was now winning slightly more than half the time. With more burn coming in from the board we thought the match was favorable overall, but it looked poor pre-board.

By the time Brian Kowal drove into the city we had a deck that we thought was favored against the major archetypes (Mono-Red, U/W Control, Mono-G Ramp), but only because it sideboarded well after probably losing game 1. Let me be the first to say that this is not really where I wanted to be deckwise, and both Sam and Brian were also skeptical of where we’d positioned ourselves. Looking for something else, Kowal picked up the old Beastmaster deck and played a set of games with Sam using the Mono-Red gauntlet deck. Beastmaster won the set 7-3, which surprised everyone. More sets were played, and it was looking like the games were draw dependent but Beastmaster seemed like it was going pretty consistently over 50%. Zvi was somewhat incredulous as he had tried almost everything he could think of the get the Beastmaster deck to beat red before discarding it earlier, but here it was. It took us a while to realize the thing that had changed was very small: The red deck was now playing the Summons combo, and that Forked Bolt had been removed to make room for those cards. The main reason Beastmaster had been losing was Forked Bolt, and with it gone win percentages increased dramatically. Summons Combo itself was also very bad against a zillion chump blockers, so that contributed too. Invigorated by these results, we returned our collective attentions to the Beastmaster deck to see what could be made of it.

Eventually we arrived at:

As you can see, there are many upgrades over the original list. Vengevine proved to be an amazing persistent threat, improving matchups across the board. There was also a moment when we realized River Boa strengthened both the Mono-Red match as well as the White/Blue control match, and it would just be sweet to play this classic card in our decks. My understanding is Zvi will write an in-depth article about the construction of the deck, so I won’t go into too much detail about each card choice here.

As we tweaked, we watched the MTGO metagame formulate and talked to people in other groups. It seemed largely that a rock-paper-scissors environment was forming where Mono-Red lost 80% of the time to U/W Control, which lost 80% of the time to Eldrazi Ramp, which lost 80% of the time to Mono-Red. We also made note that most Mono-Red decks played no Forked Bolts main, and only half of them had any copies in the sideboard. We felt that our deck had 50% or better match-ups pre-board against Red and U/W, and that these percentages held firm or improved post board. We also thought we were disadvantaged game 1 against Mono-Green Ramp, but not badly (perhaps around 40%), and that once we added Tajuru Preserver we were strongly favored. This seemed like exactly where we wanted to be. We found our matchups were even better, up in the 70% range, when decks were making choices optimal against other decks and not shooting for ours. We were pretty happy to see that our archetype didn’t really appear on MODO or come up in conversation with others, so we supposed that some would be caught unprepared to face our deck.

As far as Limited went, New York drafts a lot less than Madison. Even if I had gone to all the much-touted Finkel drafts that went on while I was in the city, I don’t think I would have gotten in as many matches as I did while in Wisconsin. We probably played two live drafts, and my limited game would have been in trouble if MTGO hadn’t come out with ROE fairly early on in my stay there. As it was our group had a split opinion on what should be drafted. Zvi and BDM both were in favor of forcing White-Blue levelers every time. It was certainly a powerful archetype when it came together, and often would 3-0 or 2-1 a draft when assembled correctly. On the downside when more than one player was pushing for it, or the cards just weren’t in the draft it could fall on its face and be a big underperformer. The other archetype that emerged as very powerful was G/x ramp, with lots of accelerators and removal spells splashed from other colors (black was often best) finishing the game with Pelakka Wurms, Skeletal Wurms, black bomb rares, or Eldrazi. Sam Black was particularly fond of a variant of this that played lots of token generators and used Shared Discovery as a card drawing engine. (Often this card was a last pick, but it was always great in the right deck.)

One great thing about MTGO is that people could draft with one or two people looking on, and we could discuss picks and builds as the draft went on. I certainly learned to build a few new archetypes by building/drafting with Sam and/or Brian Kowal. Ultimately, learning to draft over a dozen different archetypes and sub-archetypes was incredibly helpful. When I started drafting the set in Madison I was generally running anywhere between 0-3 and 2-1, and by the time I left for San Juan I was 3-0 and 2-1ing almost every 8-4 I played and was 2-1 or better in pretty much every live draft. I found I mostly just wanted to take color signals from my neighbors, draft powerful cards, and had a preference for having black or red being one of my colors because all the removal they contained. It is amazing how hooked up you can get in drafts in this format if you pay attention to color signals.

Overall, I ended up going to Pro Tour: San Juan with a great deck, a great understanding of the format, and prepared to draft with the best of them. The people I worked with are not only great Magic players, but were great company. Perhaps in a future article I’ll talk about our trips to the theater, the great Barbeque available in New York, and the fine cakes that were eaten. However, for now I’m in Manila and it’s time to go take a tour of the island. I hope this little documentation of our process was interesting, and would love feedback on how to improve on this type of article in the future if you have it.

Until next week…